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Photo Credit: Nick Barden

John Tavares is an important Toronto Maple Leaf

Welcome to the TLN Year in Review series on the Leafs players. One by one we’ll go through the entire roster and assess what went right and what went wrong for each player last season and what we think the future holds for them. Today’s article features our captain, pajama boy, John Tavares.

Year three for John Tavares as a Toronto Maple Leaf was an interesting one. Coming off of a down year where Tavares recorded 20 goals and 60 points, there were many nights last season where Tavares would collect his points, but it felt like he wasn’t doing things that an 11 million dollar player should. This led to a lot of offseason discussion on whether or not Tavares was entering his decline faster than anticipated. You add this to the disappointing loss to Columbus in the bubble and you have unreasonable discussions of trading John Tavares.

2020-21 Season Recap

 

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If you remember way back in January, Sheldon Keefe rolled out this top nine to start the season:

 

LW C RW
Joe Thornton
JOE THORNTON
Auston Matthews
AUSTON MATTHEWS
Mitch Marner
MITCH MARNER
Jimmy Vesey
JIMMY VESEY

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John Tavares
JOHN TAVARES
William Nylander
WILLIAM NYLANDER
Ilya Mikheyev
ILYA MIKHEYEV
Alexander Kerfoot
ALEXANDER KERFOOT
Zach Hyman
ZACH HYMAN

The thinking was (at least when the team was at home) the Matthews line would face the hardest matchup defensively and the Kerfoot line would take on the hardest matchup offensively. This would free up the Tavares line to face inferior opponents. Tavares started the season off with a bang. Five points in his first two games and four powerplay goals in the teams first six games overall.

Unfortunately, the plan was short-lived and outright abandoned as the season progressed. On January 20th, Joe Thornton fractured a rib and missed a month. Auston Matthews missed a few games with a nagging wrist injury as well. Couple this with the Vesey – Tavares – Nylander line cooling off, and Sheldon Keefe had no choice but to change things up. In the coming weeks, Tavares and Nylander saw Ilya Mikheyev, Zach Hyman and Alexander Kerfoot amongst others audition for the LW spot on their line with minimal success. By mid February, Tavares and Nylander had recorded just four even-strength goals all season, with Tavares scoring only two goals during Thornton’s 11-game absence.

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A lot of it was just bad luck plain and simple. Tavares was getting his looks during this drought, but the puck just wasn’t going in. The other thing, was Keefe asking Tavares to step-up defensively.

If we compare Tavares’ defensive stats between the last two seasons, we do see an improvement:

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Comparing Tavares Defensively 2019-20 2020-21
Goals Against 54 28
Corsi For/60 63.04 55.52
Corsi Against/60 55.11 52.86
Corsi For % 53.35 51.23
Expected Goals For/60 2.64 2.59
Expected Goals Against/60 2.43 2.04
Expected Goals For % 52.06 55.87
HDCF% 51.56 57.01
HDGF% 42.11 65

One of the more impressive stats is how Tavares chopped his goals against virtually in half. Last season, Tavares was on the ice for 54 goals against, compared to only 28 this season. As noted by Keefe and Tavares himself, his line wasn’t finishing enough, but they were able to generate a lot of scoring chances. It’s encouraging that Tavares was able to drastically improve defensively (with noted “defensive black-hole” William Nylander on his right-wing). If Tavares can keep this up and find a way to contribute more offensively, the Leafs are in good hands.

In late February/early March, the Tavares line as a whole started to get going offensively. This coincides with Alex Galchenyuk joining the line and providing a spark offensively. For Tavares personally, it wasn’t until April that the John Tavares of old broke through. He recorded 17 points in April, his best month by far. This includes an eight-game point streak which also saw Tavares record four consecutive two-point games in the middle of it. Tavares was hitting his stride, just in-time for the playoffs.

Unfortunately, the hockey gods had other plans. Tavares’ 2021 playoffs lasted just five shifts, or two minutes and 53 seconds. A freak accident, bang bang play saw Tavares left bloody, injured and stretchered off the ice just moments into Game 1 against the Montreal Canadiens. The Leafs would go on to lose to the Canadiens in seven games, with the void left by Tavares at 2C being felt tremendously.

Overall, Tavares’ 2020-21 season was better than the year prior, but still a lot to improve upon. His absence in the playoffs did reinforce however that even if he is entering into a decline, he’s still an integral part of the Leafs success. 50 points in 56 games is nothing to scoff at. Tavares finished within the top 30 in point scoring and when his line was clicking in April, it gave the Leafs two potent scoring lines. A vision Kyle Dubas has had since signing Tavares in the summer of 2018.

What’s next for JT?

Next season will be year four for John Tavares in Toronto. Turning 31 during training camp, the window for Tavares and the Leafs to win a cup (let alone, win a damn series) is closing fast. The Leafs have Matthews and Nylander locked in for three more seasons, with Tavares and Marner locked in for four.

Any talks of trading Tavares are silly and outlandish. He is a 31 year-old star who is leaving his prime and has four years left on his contract with four expensive bonuses left to be paid out (one at 8.44 million and three at 7.04 million). He also has a full no-movement clause on top of that. Trying to trade John Tavares would create more problems than it would solve, not to mention it would also involve salary retention which is a non-starter for me (look at how badly that 1.2 million retained in the Kessel trade has hurt the Leafs). The so-called “cap flexibility” created by trading Tavares wouldn’t be great because of the dead money retained in order to trade him.

Now, is John Tavares worth his 11 million dollar cap hit? Probably not at this point. Tavares is paid like a 1C (which he still is) but he is being used as an expensive 2C on the Leafs. At this point in his career, Tavares is a 0.95 P/G player (819 points in 870 games), and is probably good for around 70 points a season. With his offense likely in a slight decline, the biggest asset Tavares brings now is being a known commodity. You know he’s going to score around 30 goals and you know he’s going to do whatever you ask of him and more. He’s reliable, durable and plays an important position.

With that being said, the Toronto Maple Leafs are at a crossroads with their big four. The original vision for this core (sign them all and let the cap rising lower their cap hits) is not going to come to fruition in time due to Covid. Kyle Dubas has said the core will return, but five straight first round exits, including getting outscored 11-2 in the last three winner-takes-all elimination games is unacceptable.

You have to wonder who will be flanking Tavares on both wings next season. Hyman and Galchenyuk are UFA’s, it’s not unreasonable to think Marner and Nylander could be switching lines again and it’s also not unreasonable to think one or both of them could be traded. Nicholas Robertson could ride shotgun with Tavares next season, but he might benefit from another year in the AHL.

Regardless, here’s to John getting back to full health this offseason as soon as possible.

Data from MoneyPuck, NaturalStatTrick, Hockey Reference & PuckPedia